Mistress Munchkin sat on her lonely clifftop and eyed the nuclear reactor with a somewhat jaundiced eye. It was gearing up for one of those big events, she could tell, and she wondered what would come of her efforts to control the harm this time.
“Some lottery to win,” she humphed to herself. “I might have won a car, or money, or a pony. Instead I get three years on a clifftop with a giant lump of glowing concrete.”
She didn’t actually mind all that much, but having been on her own too long, Mistress Elfrida Munchkin had got into the habit of grumphing to herself to pass the time. Actually, to be put into the cauldron to be in the draw for Guardian of the Reactor was a great honour. Not every Druid got to take on such a responsible role. You had to be at the very top of your Druidic game to even be considered.
Elfrida eyed her threatening companion some more. “Don’t even think about it,” she growled. You could affect the reality of anything if your power was strong enough, but a reactor was a very powerful dark being, and yet childishly simple too, with a small child’s tendency to tantrums, and it required a great deal of the aging Druid’s energy to tone down its mischief. Not that age made any difference to your power, if you were a Druid. Elfrida had been studying and building her skills for fifty years, girl and woman, and if anyone could handle the reactor, Lumpy-Bum, as she’d come to call it, it was she.
“The cold’s crept into my fingers,” she told it now, “And all I want to do is go into my cottage there and make tea and grumph by the fire.”
Lumpy-Bum radiated a little slap at her in a childish way, just to keep in practice, then subsided back into its grassy hill. Mistress Munchkin could tell that the latest fit of temper had been averted for now, more because the being that was the reactor had truly come to like her company, than because she had used any controlling power. “Good boy,” she told it. “I’m going in for my tea now, but if you feel angry, make sure you let me know.”
She stood up from her cross-legged perch there on the cliff top. Power she had in plenty, but some things you just got too old for, and sitting on the cold ground, even on your ample bum, was still going to give you a pain. Druids didn’t like to take away the limitations of the flesh. It was part of the gift that was physical life. She could tweak, though, and tweak she did, so that by the time she had reached the weathered and bleached wooden door of her cottage, she was walking straight and tall once more.
Elfrida Munchkin (a name she had taken for herself long ago at her initiation, the first name meaning “good counsel” to remind herself to be wise, and the second being silly to remind herself not to take everything too seriously) was a lady of some fifty-five years. Her hair was strong, thick, wavy, darkly badger-grey, and was generally to be found in one long braid down her back, if it wasn’t blowing wildly about her face in all of its glory. Her body was tall and powerful, with raw bony hands and hips that could carry a babe or a tool belt with equal panache. Her face was of matching strength, with a long nose that tilted down in a way that sometimes reminded people of a gnu, strong cheeks and jaw, and large, dark eyes that were hooded over with heavy brows.
Not a beauty, no, unless you saw the beauty in wildness and in strength, in bright intelligence tempered with heart and humour. Elfrida had all of those things in spades, and indeed, many a man had found her beautiful and still did, though she was choosy in who she accepted, these days at least. Time was when she wouldn’t have been, and she liked to look back on those lively times with pleasure, but she didn’t yearn for them to return.
She pushed open the rickety door of her little cottage on the cliff. Small, bockety and cosy, it had something she had not come across in a building before, a twinned spirit. Maelgwyn and Gaelgwyn it was called, and somehow the two spirits of elderly siblings managed to inhabit it together in somewhat crabbit harmony.
“I’m home,” she told them now, throwing her grey wool cloak over the back of the couch and going to put wood on the fire.
“Tea please, Fusser dear,” she told the old kettle that hung over the fire, and it began to steam at once. By the time she had prepared her favorite teapot, known as Stewart, the kettle was whistling away in a cheery manner that belied its nickname.
Everything in this cottage had its own spirit, just as everything in the world did, but objects that had been around Druids for long definitely woke up and developed strong personalities, especially the things they used all day long.
You didn’t have to name them to work with them, but Elfrida wouldn’t have a pet animal here, living so close to the risk of poison radiated by Lumpy Bum, so she’d taken to making pets of her household objects.
She poured boiling water into Stewart, then cradled his warm belly in her cold hands. “It’s chilly out there today,” she grumphed to the room in general. “You’re lucky to get to stay in here by the fire. And, Lumpy Bum is restless this evening. I bet he gets me up in the middle of the night.”
“Ah, Mistress Munchkin,” Gaelgwyn said. He was sitting in an armchair by the fire. She couldn’t see him very well but she could feel him there, sitting where he so often was. “Don’t be grumbling now,” he told her fondly in her head. “You know you’re needed here, and that your order values your work highly. Soon enough your time here will be done, and we’ll be settling into the ways of a new guardian. Where will you go then, Druid?”
Elfrida poured tea into her favourite cup, also her biggest, and known as Bowly. (Sometimes creativity escaped her when it came to naming things.) She leaned back into the crocheted blankets that bored guardians before her had made on the long winter nights, and took her first sip of tea. “Somewhere warm,” she said dreamily. “Somewhere with lots of people. Embodied people,” she quantified apologetically to Gaelgwyn. “I think I’m getting a little strange living up here all on my own.”
“You were always strange,” said the spirit, chuckling in his crusty old way, and she had to agree. She had.
“Your kind of strange, however, is a very good thing,” he went on kindly.
She wasn’t really sure what he or his sister were. Ghosts, or the embodied accumulated spirit of this old place, or something else entirely, but either way, they probably didn’t need to retain their elderly forms and voices. They must want to be old people, for some reason. Elfrida didn’t mind. It was like having your grandparents around to give you wisdom, and maybe that was the point. Would she take advice from them if they were a pair of teenagers? Probably not, though she had taken advice from much weirder beings in her time than a teen spirit.
She couldn’t feel Maelgwyn right now. Probably the old spirit had gone off to the other cottage in the forest that she was somehow also the spirit of. Elfrida had no idea how that worked, but she’d Journeyed with Maelgwyn to that place, and it had a similar feel to this, excluding the difference of setting.
Why didn’t Gaelgwyn go there too? Who knew? Elfrida worked in mysteries, and she didn’t need to always know why things were as they were, only that they were.
She sipped her tea peacefully, saying no more. That was the nice thing about spirits and awakened things with personality; they mostly didn’t feel any need to keep chattering on about nothing, though she had once owned a handbag that had never shut up and almost driven her mad before she’d rehomed it to a person who couldn’t hear it. She’d felt kind of bad about that, until she’d realised that it had never actually listened to her and probably wouldn’t even notice that its new owner wasn’t replying.
Through the tiny windows that faced the sea, she watched the light fade from the sky. She contentedly wiggled her toes at the fire, cradling Bowly in her hands, while Fussy steamed gently, ready in case she wanted more tea.
“This isn’t such a bad life,” she told herself. “Maybe I don’t really need a warm climate or lots of people. Not yet anyway.”
Her opinion on that changed pretty quickly at 3am when Lumpy Bum blew his top.
She woke up in a hurry. The nuclear reactor was calling to her, crying into her mind like a frightened child.
Tapping into the sun energy that she carried in her centre, she snapped her fingers to make a little yellow light appear above her head, and scurried to dress by its glow, even though she was in a hurry. Working to calm down something as dangerous as a reactor wasn’t the time to have your nightdress blow up over your head and blind you.
Thick track-pants and knobbly crocheted jumper pulled on, feet crammed into gumboots that were older than her, she hurriedly pushed open the rickety door with a tortured scrape of wood on the stone floor, and ran for the cliffs, with her little yellow light bobbing above her head like a pet canary.
Lumpy Bum was glowing at the base. She could see it even with the usual light-pollution of the security floods that surrounded it.
“That can’t be good,” Elfrida breathed, coming to a halt at the best vantage point on her cliff. “What is the matter?” she asked the huge conical pile of concrete. “Lumpy, tell me what’s wrong!”
Wind blew off the sea and grabbed at her heavy braid and the floppy hem of her jumper. She staggered and spread her strong legs wider to hold her stance.
“I feel sick!” cried the huge thing. “I have a storm inside me!”
“Poor baby!” she soothed it with her mind, reaching out her mental arms to hold it in a huge hug. “Let me make it better!”
The reactor’s energy felt like a tornado, swirling up and out and pushing, pushing against its walls. It forced her hug away, not because it wanted to but because the power there was too great for it to hold. It was too great for her too.
“Cerridwen, help me please!” Elfrida called. She felt new energy enter her mind and body, as the fierce crone goddess of the Druids came to her aid, and she used it to wrap her mental arms once more around the giant reactor, building a dome to contain its explosive outburst even as she worked to soothe it. “Hold on, Lumpy,” she urged.
“I can’t… I can’t… I… caaaaaan’t! Helllpppp me!” it wailed.
She held on tight. She could see the headlights of vehicles driving away down the long lonely road that lead back to town. “Cowards!” she growled, but she didn’t really blame them. They didn’t have her protection against the radiation. Still, what happened to going down with your ship? It wasn’t like they’d be able to drive far or fast enough to get out of range if poor old Lumpy Bum really blew his stack!
She sent more soothing energy to the reactor, feeling into the whirlwind as much as she could, trying to find the centre of the problem, trying to cool it, to calm it as she went. Ah, there it was, the problem, and it wasn’t one she could fix. One of the core elements was gone, melted away. “Oh, by the Dagda’s red beard!” She swore only to herself, though the little light above her head glowed brightly for a moment from the force of her emotion.
“Lumpy, I’m so sorry!” she said. “You have a bad tummy ache. You need to be sick, and I can’t stop it. I can hold you, though, and make it better afterwards! I’m here! I’m here!”
The reactor wailed into her mind, “Help me, Grumpy one, helppp me!” as heat built up inside the great concrete tower and began to radiate, and the last cars drove away.
“Gods and Guides be with me now,” Elfrida muttered, and she felt her army of helpers come around her in the aether. Brigid, keeper of the holy well and flame. Cerridwen, already and always with her. Animals both real and mythical. The Yew tree who had taught her about death. Her teacher, Merlin. The Morrigan (who always liked a good fight). Thor, god of thunder and justice. So many others. They huddled close now as she pulled energy from them and from all around her, and from the considerable store that she kept inside herself too, and as poor old Lumpy Bum blew, she was there to catch every scrap of radiation, all the heat, all the death and destruction, and convert it into something less harmful.
Silence. Elfrida lowered her arms, feeling sweat run down her back under the lumpy sweater and catch the wind to turn to ice against her spine. Wind tugged at the tendrils of hair that had fallen out of her braid and over her nose, tickling her. She hardly dared to look at what she had done, but look she must.
The reactor was all dark now. No lights any more, but no glow either. It sat like a lump of rock, almost impossible to see on the cliff in the dark night. “Grumpy one?” it asked tremulously.
Elfrida breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re alright?” she asked.
“I feel tired,” it said to her, mental voice far weaker than she was used to. “I need to sleep.”
“Sleep then, Lumpy,” she told it. “When you wake up you’ll feel much better.”
She felt the reactor go away from her, settle into somnolence. It was ok, but the power it usually wielded was gone. Gone in one explosive event that might have made it dangerous for a thousand years and more, but instead had been converted to…what?”
Elfrida suddenly sat down, plumph, right on the cold wet grass. “Phew!” she said to herself, suddenly feeling drained and tired. “Disaster averted… I think?”
She looked suspiciously at the dark, sleeping silhouette of Lumpy B
um, but it still sat innocent under the night sky.
“I think… disaster averted!” she said more brightly. That’s when she noticed that the golden shine of her little overhead canary-light was no longer golden. Instead, she was bathed in a kind of purpley, silvery light, that cast a shadow of her foreshortened form on the grass ahead of her, and made her shiny gumboots, normally black, look like they were made of metal.
“Hmmm, spoke too soon, methinks,” Elfrida grumphed, and she took up her courage once more to bend her head back, back, and look up at the sky directly behind her. “Great goddess, what have I done?” she said then, in a soft voice of both wonder and horror as she struggled to her feet and swayed there on the cliff, buffeted by wind and shock equally.
There, coruscating in the air, floated a vasty silver thing of flumes and flows. Great ribbons of it drifted away in all directions, and two great wingish or finnish bits spread out to the sides, though they did not flap. It had a long, graceful neck, and a huge frilled head with a short, tilted-up nose and wide-set eyes. It hung in the air and flowed and drifted, and all that shining iridescence made Elfrida think of one of those Siamese fighting fish, the beautiful ones that were kept all alone in little glass cages to stop them murdering each other.
The being was beautiful, no doubt about it, but it might also be deadly. Somehow, this scintillating thing had been born of the explosion. Radiation and waste products, and energy that had had to go somewhere. “Oh my,” Elfrida said, putting hands on sturdy hips and looking up at the beast, very glad of her intact radiation shields. “Well, I didn’t expect you, you beauty!”
The being began to telegraph its head towards her, neck stretching and stretching, seeming unfettered by such silly things as bones or joints. Ribbons of energy flowed and waved around the face, which rather resembled a pug dog, a fishy sort of pug dog anyway. “What did you expect?” it asked her, tilting its head and peering at her curiously with those large silvery-purple eyes. Its voice was pure and genderless, and rang in her ears like music.
“I expected death and destruction as far as the eye could see, but not beauty, no, never beauty,” Elfrida said. “But you are beautiful, creation of mine.”
Unafraid, she put out a hand and gently stroked the fans of silver and purple that drifted around the thing’s chin. She could feel them. They were silky and soft, and real. This was not a being of pure energy, not like Maelgwyn or Gaelgwyn. It was flesh. Some sort of flesh.
The creature floated effortlessly there in front of her on the cliff, seeming to enjoy the touch of her hand, and after a few moments it settled down to the grass, though its streamers still drifted weightlessly all about it as if in water. It reached forward with a giant hand, a finned and yet fingery sort of hand, and stroked her hair where it had escaped her braid and curled down her cheek. “Are you my mother?” it asked as they stroked each other.
Elfrida laughed. “In a manner of speaking,” she said. “Do you have a name, oh beautiful one?”
“How could I have a name?” it asked her, “I did not exist until now.”
“Well then, since I am your mother, I will name you,” she said. “And I name you Dragon.”
She caressed the chin of the being again, and it smoothed its silky pug-face against her hand like some huge cat, large eyes staring at her with loving intensity.
“Do you like that name then?” she asked it. “I am not good at naming things, but I think that is a good name for you.”
“I like it, though I am not a dragon, or I don’t think I am a dragon,” the being agreed. “I’m not sure what I am.”
“I think that you are a new creature,” Elfrida said thoughtfully. “I don’t think there has ever been anyone like you before. So, you aren’t a dragon, but your name is Dragon, and that is better than Fishy or Pug, which I might have called you if I hadn’t thought of a dragon when first I saw you. How do you know what a dragon is, or a mother?”
“I do not know,” the being said, and one of the streamers of silver and purple reached out to her and wrapped around her, gently holding her. “I only know that those are things that are not me, but that one of them is your name and one is mine.”
“No-one has ever called me Mother before,” Elfrida said. “That has not been my life path, but I welcome you to call me that now, if you would like.”
“I do like,” said Dragon, and its pure voice sounded as certain as it had so far. Undertones of bells rang in the tone, and then the being leapt up into the air, and the fins, or fans, or wings or whatever they were, flowed widely outwards in all directions into an expression of what she knew was happiness. Colour and light flowed around her as if she was underwater.
“Mother!” Dragon roared. “Motherrrrr! You are MOTHER and I am DRAGON!” It began to flit all around the night sky, seeming to be able to move any direction it wanted with no need of flapping or any other sort of mechanical movement.
“Well,” Elfrida grumphed to herself, even as she smiled at the dance of joy her strange child was doing. “I have made you and named you, but I have absolutely no idea what to do with you. What does someone do with giant being made of light and poison?”
Dragon had heard her, despite her mumbling. It stretched its head back down to her again, while its body yet flitted about like some giant glistening hummingbird. “Poison?” it asked. “I am made of poison?”
“Yes,” Elfrida said. “Your body is made of something that does not sustain life. Not life as this planet knows it anyway.”
“That is not good,” said Dragon, bringing its body down to earth once more, light and colours dimming. “I don’t want to poison you, Mother.” Large eyes peered into her face in worried enquiry. “Am I making you ill?”
“I am safe, my child,” she said. “I am protected. It is others who might be made unwell by you.”
“That is bad,” Dragon said. “How will I be able to see this world if I will make the beings here unwell?”
“Let’s go have a cup of tea,” Elfrida said decidedly. “I’m cold and I need tea. Tea helps me think.”
She made her way across the frosty grass, with Dragon floating along behind her like the most spectacular parade balloon ever. At the door to the cottage, she turned to size up her child, and said, “Even if you pull in all your beautiful fins you will still be too big to fit in my cottage. I will put the kettle on and then bring tea outside. Let’s see if you like tea.”
“Leave the door open, Mother,” Dragon beseeched her. “I will be lonely out here.”
A being the size of a large house who has separation anxiety, that’s going to be convenient, Elfrida thought to herself as she went to the fireplace to fill Fussy full and pop it into the centre of the fire, which she stirred up to get flames jumping. Then she hunted for her biggest teapot, known as Cassie the Cauldron, and put ten teaspoons of tea into her. If Dragon drank tea at all, it would need a lot.
Dragon had poked its vasty frilled head as far into the cottage as it could, and the room was filled with a purple and silver light that competed strangely with the flickering orange firelight. It watched her now with intense interest. “I like your house,” it said. “I like the cushions and the fire. I would like to sit in there and drink tea with you, Mother.”
“Well, I would like that too,” Elfrida said, “But as you can see, this is a small space and you are very big.”
Dragon grumphed a bit in an amusingly similar way to Elfrida’s own, and subsided its head down until its short, frilly chin was resting on the back of the couch nearest the door. It sighed a long sigh that blew the tablecloth, which flapped up and nearly blew right off, until caught by the weight of Cassie the Cauldron. Elfrida hefted Fussy up and poured a river of boiling water into the giant teapot.
“Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” exclaimed Maelgwyn from her armchair, where she had suddenly materialised, with Gaelgwyn in his chair beside her. The pair of old spirits were smiling wickedly, and Elfrida knew they were enjoying this unusual development very much.
“I know you missed having a pet, but really, wouldn’t a rat or white rabbit have done?” said Gaelgwyn with mock grumpiness. His old eyes were twinkling as he reached forward to stir up the fire with a fire-poker as misty and half-there as he himself was. The fire responded anyway.
“What is a pet?” asked Dragon.
“A pet is an animal that humans keep beside them for company,” Elfrida said. “You are not a pet. you are a person, I’m just not sure what sort of person yet. These two are a different sort of person too. The annoying sort who poke their noses into things,” she added, glaring at the two house spirits, who both chuckled unashamedly. Suddenly the cottage seemed way too small for all the large personalities in it.
“I am a person, and persons sit in cottages and drink tea,” said Dragon decidedly, and it began to come into the doorway more and more, until its shoulders were stuck. Long glowing frills of silver and mauve drifted about the room, and Elfrida carefully pulled one away from the hot teapot and set it drifting in another direction. Dust filtered down from the ceiling, and the walls creaked as the huge being continued to push.
“Dragon!” Elfrida snapped. “You’ll knock the cottage right over! You’re too big to come in!”
The creature stopped, still pressing up against the door, gazing covetously at the couch and fire and the two chuckling old spirits in the corner. “I will be smaller,” it said, and with that, it began to shrink and shrink, until suddenly its shoulders fit through the door, and still it shrank, until it was the size of a Great Dane, and now the whole body was inside, though there wasn’t much room any more, and then it was small as a cat.
Dragon floated up onto the couch-back where it had so recently rested its enormous chin. Ribbons of silver and purple spread out around it. It curled up, catlike, and looked very, very unlike a cat, apart from the smugness.
“There,” it said. “I am now a person who can fit in a cottage and have tea by the fire.”
“Well, that’s handy!” Elfrida said. “But now we have too much tea!”
“Maybe,” said Dragon, “But maybe I still have a very big stomach inside my smaller body. We will see.”
Elfrida grumped comfortably and poured tea into Bowly for Dragon and into an ordinary cup for her. She filled cups for Maelgwyn and Gaelgwyn too, and placed them carefully beside the spirits. They couldn’t drink the extant tea, but they enjoyed the ritual, and they said they drank the spirit of the tea. Elfrida didn’t know how that worked, but it felt cosy to include them in the many-times-daily practice.
She took down the biscuit tin and brought out two biscuits for each of them, a pair for each of the old house spirits too. She carefully placed them on each saucer beside the tea cups. Dragon growled excitedly at the sight, big pug eyes popping out, streamers flowing around extra fast with the emotion.
Ahhh, what an odd and long night, Elfrida thought to herself as she eased her substantial self down into her battered favourite armchair.
Pulling her tea towards her to cradle it against her breast, still-cold hands cupped around it, Elfrida settled at last with a sigh of contentment.
Dragon reached a long, stretchable neck to lap at its tea without leaving the couch back, a sight which made Elfrida snort with amusement, as Maelgwyn and Gaelgwyn leaned forward with happy but totally unnecessary old-people groans to pick up the spirit-cups of their own drinks, biscuits and all. Elfrida sipped hot tea like it was some magical healing elixir, and of course that is exactly what it is.
Dragon drank up its tea in one snuffling, sucking, smacking rush, flat face jammed into Bowly, then snapped up its biscuits and, still crunching, turned that odd, puggy, fishy face around to look at Elfrida. “Tea is very good, Mother, and I like person-food.”
It settled back onto the couch-back with its odd, finny hand-feet tucked neatly under its chest. It blinked a few times and its head drooped for a moment. “I think I’m very tired now. Being born was hard work.”
“I hear you!” Elfrida said nibbling at her second biscuit. “Birthing you was hard work too.”
Dragon stared at her with those slightly protuberant, glowing purple eyes, looking more hungry than tired and for a moment as she nibbled there, Elfrida idly wondered if it might like to eat her for dessert even though her heart knew that it wouldn’t.
Instead, the being crept forward until it was at the closest corner of the couch back, then, “Could I?” it pleaded, and without waiting for an answer, it floated from the couch to her armchair, living fins of silver and purple drifting about as it came. it was suddenly on her lap, snuggled under where she still cradled her tea cup. Warm, soft, and only slightly radioactive at this size, her new and very strange child began to snore gently, its silvery streamers slowing, sinking, drifting down to rest on her knees, and to trail down her legs to the floor.
Elfrida grumphed a little, just to keep in practice, then sipped tea carefully so as not to disturb her sleeping Dragon. She smiled a secret, contented smile.